Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

On a Halloween night early in the 1930s, a barn caught fire a few miles from Corry, Erie County. A passer by, Harry Burrows, hurriedly tied his horse and ran to help free the trapped animals. In the excitement no one noticed that the farm’s hired man was missing, but later they learned that his kerosene lantern was the cul­prit in starting the fire. “Some time, some way, he knocked that lantern into the hay mow,” recalled Burrows. “And he never come out of it. When they tried to count noses, here he was gone. It was a direct result of not having electricity.”

Only fifty years ago, the fear of setting a house or barn ablaze with one tip of an oil lamp was part of everyday life in much of rural Pennsylvania. Unlike city dwellers, many of those who persevered in the remote regions of Pennsylva­nia can well remember living without electric power. Just as clearly, they remember, too, the first day they received service through that time­-honored rural approach to common needs: the coopera­tive.

Through rural electric cooperatives – with the help of the Rural Electrification Ad­ministration (REA) established by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt – country people themselves brought power and a new way of life to their iso­lated homes and farms. This year, during the fiftieth anni­versary of cooperative rural electrification in the Common­wealth, those who do remem­ber are recounting the old, time-honored stories again­ – nostalgic stories of the back­breaking labor that typified farm life in the 1930s, and how that changed with electric power.

More than half a century after Thomas Edison built the first central-station electric system in Manhattan in 1882, nine out of ten farms in the United States still lacked central-station service. In Pennsylvania, where the pop­ulation was somewhat denser than in the west and midwest, about one-quarter of the farmers were blessed with electricity.

As power companies learned to transmit their prod­uct over long distances, they expanded service from cities into smaller towns and the more densely populated rural areas. But where the popula­tion was sparsest it was not considered practical, much less profitable, to build electric lines. Unlike today’s universal, government-regulated utility service, electricity at the time was provided largely on the power companies’ terms. Most people simply believed that electric service in rural areas was impossible. In 1935, a Philadelphia gas company official informed a convention of the Edison Electric Institute that “only in the imagination … does there exist any wide­spread demand for electricity on the farm or any general willingness, or ability, to pay for it.”

Even the most stoic farmer who reluctantly accepted the common wisdom knew that central-station service could revolutionize his life. Without it, he did all his work by hand, or with unreliable gasoline motors and battery power. Without power for an electric pump, families laboriously pumped water by hand or drew it from a spring and hauled it indoors. One Penn­sylvania farmer pumped water by enticing an old Airedale dog to run on a treadmill.

If a farmer’s life was hard, his wife’s was harder. She cooked on a hot, smoky stove that hungrily devoured wood and refused to keep a constant temperature. Without refriger­ation, she preserved food by laborious canning or smoking, by placing it in a spring or cold stream, or by storing it in the cellar with a screen to protect it from insects.

Monday – all day – was laundry day. “Our first washer was me, on a scrubboard,” recalled Mary Davenport of Crawford County. Women heated tubs of water on a fire or stove, boiled and scrubbed a week’s worth of clothes, then rinsed, wrung and hung them to dry. The most de­spised chore of all was iron­ing. A farm wife would keep several five- to seven-pound flatirons or “sadirons” on the stove and use one while the others were heating. Not only were they heavy, the irons could easily scorch skin or clothing and never maintained a steady temperature. Kathleen Shoop of Fannetts­burg, Franklin County, re­membered this ordeal most dearly of all her childhood chores. “In the summer we’d always move out in what we called the shanty. And we had a cookstove [to heat the irons]. They would get black or smoke sometimes, and I would forget to wipe them off, and I’d be ironing my dad’s or my brother’s white shirt with black on it. And then my mother would say, ‘well, why don’t you wipe the irons off’, because she’d have to wash the shirts again.

“They always wanted eve­rything starched, to make the collars real stiff and the cuffs real stiff. And the starch – your iron would stick to it. So I remember I hated that job of ironing shirts.”

Next to the sadiron, the chief symbol of rural drudgery was the kerosene lantern. William C. Wenner of Orangeville, Columbia County, who devoted his entire career to rural electrifi­cation, recalled the inconven­ience and danger of lighting by burning oil.

“You could milk a cow in the dark, but there were a lot of things around a barn you couldn’t do in the dark. And that was terrible, to work around a barn with the explo­dable things – the hay and the dust and so forth – with a lantern.

“You know, you couldn’t leave a baby that could move around at all in a room with a lamp or a candle. So you had to either keep the baby in the dark or stay there with him.”

Mary Davenport moved to a farm near Conneautville after she graduated from col­lege and married; her recollec­tions of trying to adjust are especially poignant: “You have no idea what it was to be a girl out of college, newly married, on a farm, never been without electricity. Never had to build a wood fire, never had to go out to the outhouse, never had to pump water. I recall those days with laughter now, but it wasn’t funny then.

“I remember how Don [her husband] used to come home from work, and I would be crying, the tears would be running down my sooty face. I had tried to build that fire. We had a vendetta going, that stove and I. And he’d come home, tired from work, and expect a nice, hot supper. There was no supper, there was no fire. There was noth­ing.”

Some farmers generated limited and undependable power using gasoline motors and batteries. Kathleen Shoop’s father, J.N. “Nelse” Wineman, was always trying a new way to make his own electricity.

“It’s too bad [they couldn’t get service],” she said, “be­cause my father would have had everything electric then. He was always hooking up motors – gasoline motors – to do things. But then he got the idea of having a wind charger. A great big thing, I don’t know how large in diameter. And when the wind would blow, we would really have electric­ity!

“One weekend my father and brother went bear hunting up in northern Pennsylvania. And the first night they were gone it got windy. We (Kathleen, her mother and a hired woman) didn’t know how to shut it off. And we had to turn every light on in our house, and run our water, we kept the water running all night. Even in the attic the lights were on. [We didn’t know whether] it would have burned up or something.”

For a few farmers who lived near existing “high lines” along well-traveled roads, service was available, if not cheap. But many more had to pay for line construction to their property: $1,500 to $3,000 in an era when farm income for an entire year aver­aged only $1,800. In addition, minimum monthly rates were often higher than in towns­ – $15, $20, even $30, impossible sums during the Great Depression – because the power company had fewer customers per mile to generate revenue.

The lack of electric service widened the chasm between town and country in both the standard of living and social status. Not only did the try­ing, agrarian life age people early, but electricity was among the wonders enticing young people to the cities and away from the farms. “We felt deprived – just lived out there in the dark,” remembered Bill Wenner. “These town kids, you know, they laughed at going to an outhouse. They thought we were some kind of hicks from the sticks.”

Slowly, however, the idea of rural electrification was firmly taking hold in high places. As early as the turn of the cen­tury, progressives and conser­vationists, including Theodore Roosevelt, advocated reasona­bly priced electricity for farmers.

In Pennsylvania in 1923, Gov. Gifford Pinchot commis­sioned the “Giant Power” survey, whose mission was “to bring cheaper and better elec­tric service to all those who have it now, and to bring good and cheap electric service to those who are still without it.” The ambitious survey also proposed that the state build huge generating facilities at the mouths of its coal mines and transmit low-cost power to city and country people alike. The report prophetically declared that “when farmers in Pennsylvania wake up to the fact that electricity can transform their lives from drudgery and ineffectiveness to comfort and accomplish­ment, nothing will prevent them from having it.” Al­though the General Assembly never adopted the survey’s suggestions, its ideas did not fade. The head of the survey board was Morris Llewellyn Cooke, a Philadelphia engi­neer for whom rural electrifi­cation in the United States was a personal – and zealous­ – cause.

Morris L. Cooke joined Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration in 1933 as head of the Mississippi Valley Com­mittee of the Public Works Administration. He was also a member of the National Power Policy Committee. Within two years, he designed a plan that put into action President Roosevelt’s, as well as his own, interest in rural electrifi­cation.

On May 11, 1935, Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Rural Electrifica­tion Administration (REA) to “administer … and supervise a program of approved pro­jects with respect to the gener­ation, transmission, and distribution of electric energy in rural areas.” The agency would lend money to power companies to employ men from relief rolls, offsetting the cost of building lines in the country. Cooke was appointed its first administrator.

A few power companies applied for loans, but when Cooke discovered they planned to electrify only the more densely populated and economically profitable areas, he was outraged. Realizing that investor-owned utilities were not going to fulfill his hopes, the administrator made the funding available for local, user-owned cooperatives.

A year later, in 1936, a Steamburg, Crawford County, woman, Georgia Haefli, wrote what is thought to be the first letter from a Pennsylvanian inquiring about REA. She did not live to see her efforts bear fruit, but the Steamburg Elec­tric Cooperative Association, later renamed the Northwest­ern Rural Electric Cooperative Association, became the first electric co-op in the Common­wealth.

As elsewhere in the nation, each of Pennsylvania’s rural electric cooperatives was a monumental “do-it-yourself” project. Farmers went door to door, persuading neighbors to enlist and part with the five dollar membership fee. When they had gathered what REA considered enough support­ – at least three members per mile – they formed a coopera­tive, elected a board of direc­tors and applied for a loan. Construction crews, some­times working for no more than the hope of eventually getting electricity, set the poles and strung the wires, building by hand or using only rudi­mentary equipment.

It was no easy feat to orga­nize a cooperative, as rural electric pioneers remember. While people wanted power, many were skeptical of this new REA, or afraid the gov­ernment would take over their farms if they couldn’t pay their bills. More fears surfaced when individuals were asked for right-of-way easements or permission for the co-op to put poles and lines on their land.

“You got very peculiar responses when you asked for rights of way in some places,” recalled Thelma Jackson of Spartansburg, Crawford County, who collected ease­ments. Her neighbors feared that REA would plant crops along the lines and break up fields or that the power would poison the land.

Meanwhile, the frenzied activity did not go unnoticed by the power companies. While in some localities the co-ops enjoyed good relations with them and the entire busi­ness community, in others it seemed that as soon as a co-op began building, company lines sprouted overnight to pick up the most accessible and lucra­tive pockets of customers. The utilities that erected what the co-ops called “spite lines” were spurred by a variety of motives: opposition to govern­ment involvement in business (especially theirs), disapproval of Roosevelt and his New Dealers, fear of what they considered a form of social­ism. In any case, the power companies’ “cream skimming” made life more difficult for the co-ops, which needed the denser clusters of customers to compensate for the sparsely populated areas.

Some company officials even tried to dissuade co-op leaders.

“I was working in the woods one day,” remembered Harry Burrows, who worked with Northwestern RECA’s founders and served as a director from 1949 until last year, “and two company man­agers came and said they wanted to see me. They came clear back into the woods to find me. They said they’d heard there was some activity to promote a cooperative in the area, and I said, yes, we were all interested if we could find electricity was available [to purchase and distribute].

“They said, well, where are you going to buy the electric­ity? We aren’t anxious to sell to you. And r said, if we get the lines built, I’m sure we can find somebody that would sell us electricity. I felt much en­couraged by the fact that they would go to the effort to hunt me up in the woods and try to talk me out of the idea.”

Pennsylvania’s Electric Cooperative Corporation Act, passed in 1937 after a heated battle in the legislature, won electric cooperatives the legal right to organize residents in rural areas not served by pri­vate power companies. Even so, trouble persisted for sev­eral years.

Big Spring, Cumberland County, became the scene of bitter controversy in 1941 when Adams Electric Cooper­ative, based in Gettysburg, was forming. According to its early leaders, a neighboring power company began build­ing lines day and night, with­out rights of way, where the co-op had previously enlisted families. A group of angry farmers, who had tried for years to get service from the company without success, decided to take matters into their own hands. Edwin A. Kann, who helped to map Adams’ system and was a member of its board for eight­een years, remembered the episode: “It was really comical after it was all over. [The farmers J met early one eve­ning and decided they had tolerated all of this they were going to. That night they were going to physically stop the construction. Utility people were digging holes by hand, as they did at that time, and the farmers’ group would shovel them shut. There was no real violence because the utility people were getting paid, and it didn’t matter to them how many hours it took. And the farmers were just gonna see to it that they didn’t set any poles.

“They did get several poles set that night, which some­how towards morning were sawed off by some unknown person. That’s where it ended.” A court order halted construction until the co-op won most of the disputed territory in a settlement.

There was little to compare with the anticipation co-op members felt, their houses wired and the lines built, ready for the switch to be pulled. After years, often a lifetime, of waiting, “the day the lights came on” was a wondrous occasion, remem­bered as well as births, wed­dings and other family milestones.

“I well remember the day they came on in our home,” recalled Thelma Jackson. “It was New Year’s Day, 1937. And our family was gathered around the dinner table when the lights came on. That was really a thrill.”

“I’ve seen this happen – the lights come on-hundreds of places,” said Bill Wenner, who was Northwestern’s manager from 1949 to 1971, “and it’s an emotional situation you can’t describe. People prayed, they cried, they swore.”

“The people wouldn’t let us quit in the evening,” offered Earl Miller, who worked on the original line crew of Som­erset Rural Electric Coopera­tive and later became its man­ager. “We turned on the electricity, and they shouted and were so happy. We worked till dark!”

And Mary Davenport, who had found farm life so hard: “It was about two years [until she got service] and I had gotten these beautiful wed­ding presents. An electric coffee maker, an electric toaster, and there they sat.

“So the day the electric came in, I sat at my kitchen table. The electric coffee pot was plugged in, the toaster was plugged in, a bare light bulb hung above, and I sat there and waited. And such a thrill, you have no idea.

“I had polished all my oil lamp globes. They were sitting in a nice, neat little row. Never again would I have to polish those sooty old things. Never again would I have to fill the tank on them, never again would I have to trim the wicks. They sat there and I was glad.”

Many communities made a public celebration out of start­ing the flow of power through co-op lines. Adams Electric energized its first thirty-five miles of line near Gettysburg amid speeches, band music and a mock funeral for the oil lamp, complete with eulogy, burial, headstone and epitaph.

As with any new enter­prise, the fledgling coopera­tives had a few edges to smooth. But early members were patient with outages. Feeling grateful even for part­-time electricity, they some­times notified the co-ops that their power was out by writing letters. But misconceptions flourished. Some people be­lieved the power would leak from the outlets unless appli­ances were plugged into them. Others screwed corncobs into empty light sockets to keep the “juice” from running out. Housewives used hotpads to turn on switches or electric stove controls. Unaccustomed to irons that actually stayed hot, they unplugged their new electric ones when they were hot enough to use, then re­plugged them after they had cooled.

Farmers and their families were not the only rural inhab­itants that had to get used to the new phenomenon.

“W hen we first got our milking machine – it was aw­ful, but it was funny,” said Kathleen Shoop (whose father finally electrified his farm about 1939 through the Valley Rural Electric Cooperative, now based in Huntingdon. “Oh, the cows just went wild. You never heard cows carrying on so, and you never saw them kicking so. This [neigh­bor] man had to tie their back feet some way so they wouldn’t kick. They finally got them milked. But it was a mess. The cows did not like electricity!”

In the beginning, many families were concerned only with electric lights. Liberation from the odious lantern -from doing chores in the dark-was considered the main triumph of rural electrification, and many houses had nothing more than one or two bare lightbulbs when the lines were energized. Even that seemed like luxury. Gradually, how­ever, as they learned all that electricity could do, rural people used more of it. They stocked their homes with electric irons, radios, stoves, refrigerators and washing machines, and their barns with electric motors, milkers and poultry brooders. The co­ops responded by expanding and improving their systems to meet the burgeoning de­mand. “We just couldn’t build the lines fast enough,” re­marked one early lineman.

But build they did. Be­tween 1936 and 1941, thirteen co-ops were formed in the Commonwealth – in the Allegheny Mountains of the west, along the northern tier, and in south-central Pennsyl­vania. During World War II, shortages of materials and manpower restrained their growth, but they boomed afterwards.

The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 made REA a per­manent lending agency, rather than a relief program, to en­courage universal rural electri­fication. As a result, ninety-nine percent of rural Americans now have electric service. An agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Rural Electrification Ad­ministration still administers loan programs for rural electric co-ops. Today, Pennsylvania’s cooperatives maintain nearly twenty-five thousand miles of line and provide electricity to six hundred thousand people, many of whom still refer to their local co-ops as “the REA.”

It is difficult to exaggerate the change wrought by rural electrification in Pennsylvania. As profound as were the ef­fects of new comfort, conven­ience and farm productivity, electricity brought something perhaps more important. “We felt like first-class American citizens,” remarked Bill Wen­ner. To boast to one’s neigh­bors “we’ve got the REA now!” meant new respectabil­ity and equality with city folks.

Electricity effected greater changes as well. Young people were more inclined to stay on the farm, and business and industry could set up and prosper in rural communities. The cooperatives not only proved rural electrification could be done; they also unwittingly prompted private power companies to serve more rural areas, and helped to introduce a revolutionary idea: that rural residents needed and deserved electric service regardless of where they lived.

“You can’t imagine it now,” said Thelma Jackson, “we take it for granted. But at that time it was something that we had never, never expected would happen.” Another early co-op member expressed the thoughts of countless rural Pennsylvanians when she said simply, “REA was the greatest thing that ever happened to us country people.”


For Further Reading

Funigiello, Philip J. Toward a National Power Policy: The New Deal and the Electric Utility Industry, 1933-1941. Pittsburgh: University of Pitts­burgh Press, 1973.

Giant Power: The Report of the Giant Power Survey Board to the General Assembly. Harris­burg: 1925.

Pence, Richard A., ed. The Next Greatest Thing: 50 Years of Rural Electrification in Amer­ica. Washington, D.C.: National Rural Electric Cooperative Associ­ation, 1984.

People – Their Power: The Rural Electric Fact Book. Wash­ington, D.C.: National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, 1980.

Severson, Harlan. Miracle Bless­ing: Rural Electrification in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Rural Electric Asso­ciation, 1977.


Mary Ellen Romeo grew up in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, and received her bachelor of arts degree in English from Western Maryland College in 1980. She was a writer and pro­ducer for WHP Stations in Har­risburg for four years, and for the last two years has been a staff writer with the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association head­quartered in center-city Harris­burg. She is also serving as coordinator of the association’s statewide fiftieth anniversary celebration activities.